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PBS captures McKellen in ‘King Lear’

Neal Justin Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Catching Ian McKellen’s masterful performance in the limited touring production of “King Lear” required connections or lots of luck. Now all you need is a TV set.

Tonight PBS will air the full production of William Shakespeare’s “Lear,” recorded at England’s Pinewood Studios, home base for the James Bond series.

The tie to .007 is appropriate since the title role requires the stamina, strength and savvy of an action hero – one who learns all too late that you only live once.

With that in mind, one could forgive the 70-year-old McKellen for merely recycling his stage performance for the cameras. But the actor, who’s now touring Britain with his “X-Men” nemesis Patrick Stewart in “Waiting for Godot,” said that’s no longer his style.

“For the first 15 to 20 years of my career, it was my great pride to be a professional who gave the same performance every night,” he said.

“Then I worked with a director who said, ‘You’re talking about dead theater, Ian, and I want you to be involved in live theater, which is a performance for this audience and this audience alone. You have to respond to the fact that you’re 24 hours older than you were when you last played the part, and therefore it would be foolish to think you could do it exactly the same.’ …

“There are things I do in this performance which I didn’t ever do onstage. … There are so many details – I can’t point them out to you – in which this performance is particular. And so it should be.”

One particular that made some theatergoers gasp won’t be seen in the PBS production. Director Trevor Nunn decided not to include the full-frontal nude scene that occurs as Lear sinks deeper into dementia.

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